Every day, DEF would cull stories from the affiliates and O & O’s (owned and operated - bigger stations than simply affiliates) throughout the country. And then at the end of the day, there would be the major feed from the network to all those stations with about a dozen stories. That way, a little station in the Midwest could have footage and a voice/over of, say, an explosion at a factory in the south. Or a speech in Boston by someone famous could run on the news in Texas.
For a while, I worked the 4pm to midnight shift. After the main feed, most of the staff would go home and I would be there alone working with a man I’ll call Bob. He was a family man in so much as he had been divorced and had sole custody of a young child right up until he remarried and had a newborn.
As I’d rip wire copy off the machines and label tapes in the lonely newsroom, Bob would regale me with stories of his S & M sex with various women while his kid slept in the next bedroom (before his recent marriage.) He would chuckle a lot and the scars all over his face and neck would outline the bulge in his eyes as he’d wait for my reactions to his prowess.
I was too young to understand that his crude talk was unacceptable and inappropriate. I can’t recall, but if I had to guess, I’d say that I probably blushed and guffawed and tried to move across the room and answer a ringing telephone. I certainly didn’t tell my union boss. I didn’t tell the news director of DEF. I never told my family.
The only thing that interrupted this routine was my nightly delivery of tapes to the main ABC building (we were down the street in a dump of a building) and one other building where I used to see Susan Lucci come out after wrapping up her show each day and fans would fawn all over her.)
It seems I went past Bob’s favorite hamburger stand each night, or at least near it, and he knew that, so he would give me a dollar and tell me to buy him dinner. He never asked. He always told me and assumed I’d do what he said. I recall many a night when I’d be shivering in freezing temperatures waiting for Bob’s hamburger to get wrapped in paper so I could bring it back to his fat self.
Every night I complied without so much as a boo. Until the night I didn’t.
The DEF newsroom was full of producers and editors - the main staff had not yet finished for the day - and Bob was already giving me his marching orders. Only this time, I said that no, I was not going to buy his hamburger. I can’t recall why. I had just had it with his orders. I wanted to come back, get warm and eat my own dinner. I wasn’t around to get Bob’s dinner. And I’d become fed up. It was not in my job description. It was not something I had to do.
What happened next was all so simple. Bob crawled onto the top of a desk across from me, leaned toward me as if to grab me and said the following:
“I ought to fucking kill you.”
Perhaps it was the new baby at home. Perhaps it was the lack of bondage. I don’t know. All I know is that no one, and I do mean NO ONE in that crowded newsroom said a word. Oh, you could hear a pin drop. People sucked wind. People were aghast. But no one said anything either to Bob, or in defense of me.
I walked to another phone, shakily called the main newsroom and said I was going home.
I lived at the time with the mother of a friend on the East Side and she took care of me. When the vice president in charge of desk assistants called a short time later, I told him the entire story. And said I wasn’t coming back.
The next night when I reported for work with this kind VP’s encouragement, I was assigned to the main assignment desk. And when I saw the people who worked in the DEF newsroom pass by, they would not speak to me.
A short while later, two huge union thugs right out of central casting followed me onto the elevator and told me to press charges. Everyone knew this had happened. No one spoke of it, except for the two defensive nose tackles that wanted me to make trouble through the union I was a member of. But what difference would it make? Because abuse by men - and women - had been going on for as long as I had been at the network.
DEF was also the newsroom where a famous science correspondence would kiss me on the cheek any time he walked by me. And the news director there, the son of a very, very famous newsman, would fall out of a nearby bar so fall-down-drunk many nights, it was a miracle he could get home to his family on Long Island.
When I tried to tell my family the story about Bob threatening to kill me because I would not buy his hamburger, they would not listen. They laughed and said that sort of thing simply didn’t happen. Perhaps not in their world, but it happened all the time at the network. Shit happened all the time! It happened with the sports producer who was a cocaine addict and felt that his uncontrollable bursts of rage were acceptable, indeed, delightful for those of us on whom they landed.
It happened with the famous anchorman whose hands were in his pants any and every time I walked into his office.
It happened with the rage-aholic alcoholic, past-her-prime producer who had been jilted by a famous correspondent in London and who took her bra off at the assignment desk every night, through the arms of her pontoon dress (she was very busty) and then who sipped her booze through a flask until she was so hostile drunk she would corner me and hiss incoherently just before the show went live. And it would happen with the nastiest of them all: an obese woman with a full beard who wore Hermes scarves and had no jurisdiction over me at all, yet who used to sidle up to me in her Ferragamo shoes, smirk, and tell me to make a pot of coffee for her (I told her - and this is a direct quote: “I don’t drink it, so I don’t make it.”) She didn’t like me very much.
And then there was one of the founding fathers of Nightline who used to ask me to come into his office, have me sit in a chair across from him, take several calls while staring at me, hang up, then tell me I was free to leave.
ABC News was an abusers paradise in my experience. It was full of amazingly dysfunctional and marginally talented people who truly believed, as the French say, that they farted higher than their own assholes.
Did I learn much about news, about writing it, or how to craft a story? Hell no. I learned about survival (the main receptionist told me to keep my back against the wall every minute I was in the building.) I learned about abuse and how powerful people make sure it’s not noticed. I learned that some of the most famous people you see on TV are some of the dumbest folks you’ll ever meet. I learned that some employees there felt it was their divine right to scream anything at anyone they wanted whenever they wanted. Oh, and I learned how to pad an expense account.
The best advice anyone ever gave me was from Peter Jennings who said that if I wanted to be a reporter I needed to have something to report about. I needed to just go out and do it. And it wasn’t going to happen in that factory of fucked up nut jobs like Bob who were mired in midlife misery and dead end jobs.
So I left and I went west and I became a reporter. And I never looked back. I still have friends from those days. People I care about and liked then and still like now. We had fun, met a lot of famous people, and tore a lot of wire copy.
But I’ll never forget the emotional and verbal abuse that was allowed to go on. Nor will I forget the famous dude from Nightline who called the assignment desk one night and said, “Let’s do it and let’s do it now.” He thought I was the frustrated divorcee editor who was hoping to fuck her way to the top and who had worn a fur coat and full make up for that evening’s shift for some strange reason. So I put her on the phone and seconds later off she went in the elevator. She returned before her dinner break was up, hair disheveled, lipstick worn off. She never did get promoted. And he had a handful of kids and a wife at home. Yuck. And Yup. Those were the good old days in the news business.